February 19, 2009, 9:48 AM — If all goes according to plan, Bluetooth could soon help you monitor your heart rate.
Although Bluetooth technology is commonly used today for syncing up mobile devices with headsets or for wirelessly networking PCs with mice and printers, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) is working on two new standards that will make the technology both faster and more energy-efficient. Mike Foley, executive director of the Bluetooth SIG, says the specifications will greatly expand the types of applications that can utilize Bluetooth for wireless communications.
The low-energy specification, which Foley says should be completed by year-end, will enable Bluetooth technology for use on devices that require less energy than cell phones or personal computers, such as watches and heart-rate monitors.
"The watch industry is extremely excited about this low-energy Bluetooth specification," Foley says. "The use of watches has been declining because people are using their mobile phone as their watch now. For the watch industry, they can leverage the mobile phone platform by syncing it up with your wristwatch. So for instance, if someone calls you on your mobile phone, your watch will serve as the caller ID and let you know who is calling."
Nick Jones, an analyst at Gartner who recently named the new Bluetooth specifications as the most important wireless technology to watch over the next two years, says that having a low-energy option for Bluetooth makes it the perfect technology for sensors that use relatively little energy and that spend a lot of time in standby mode. With low-energy Bluetooth technology installed, Jones says that batteries on the sensors can be designed to last for years.
"The low energy Bluetooth standard will open up a lot of possibilities," he says. "With the new low energy mode there is the potential to build sensors that can talk to your mobile phone and be controlled remotely, such as the thermostat in your house."
The other major new Bluetooth specification will be a high-speed standard that Foley says will dramatically enhance users' ability to zap data around their devices. For instance, the new specification will let users wirelessly send mp3 files from the computers to their mobile phones or to send bulk downloads of pictures quickly from a digital camera to a computer. Foley says the Bluetooth SIG's eventual goal is to have Bluetooth reach speeds of up to 100Mbps that will allow high-definition video streaming directly from digital camcorders onto a television screen.
Integrated circuit supplier Broadcom, which has been developing chips that combine 801.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and FM radio, has been performing live public demonstrations of this faster Bluetooth technology and has reached speeds of up to 24Mbps at the 2009 International Consumer Electronics Show. Broadcom senior product manager Ron Wang says his company has conducted its tests over the 802.11 channel currently used for Wi-Fi using Broadcom's wireless LAN chips. When sending files from PCs to mobile phones, Wang says Broadcom has consistently achieved data speeds in the 20M to 24Mbps range, while sending data from mobile phones to PCs has topped out at around 10Mbps.
Despite these improvements to Bluetooth's speed and energy efficiency, however, the technology will not be getting an upgrade in its wireless range, which currently tops out at around 100 meters. Foley says the Bluetooth SIG wants the technology to stay true to its roots as a short-range data transfer protocol.
"These new specifications will potentially have more range than the old ones, but that's not what we're targeting," he says. "We look at Bluetooth as being a personal area technology and we want to focus on developing applications that you run in your personal space."